Improving education in the Arab world is crucial

Friday 15/01/2016
Diploma blues

One of the great paradoxes in the Arab world is the quality, or rather the lack of, higher education. Indeed, there are numerous graduate schools in the Arab world; however, the level of teaching is far below the standards of European and North American schools.

A great many people in the Arab world recognise the value of a good education. Even illiterate parents are well aware the difference a college degree can make in the life of their children down the road.

Many will face years of hardship and they will surmount economic difficulties, issues with visas and residency permits to meet required regulations to send their children to study in the best universities in Europe and North America. Yet, when it comes to the quality of educational standards in Arab universities, those remain substandard when compared to institutions of higher learning in other parts of the world.

Not a single Arab university makes a list of the best 100 colleges and universities around the world.

One of the complaints often heard in the region is that education in the Arab world is outdated and needs a major overhaul. Education as it stands in the Arab world today does not prepare children to be citizens or leaders of tomorrow, as do Western universities. The teaching of science, technology and foreign languages is lagging. As is the ability of universities to adapt to changing trends in society and to meet the changing academic requirements.

Egyptian universities, for example, continue to graduate dozens of engineers every year, although the demand for engineers is not there in the numbers provided by colleges. Many of those engineers end up driving taxis for the rest of their lives or working at menial jobs in government bureaucracies, and that is if they are lucky.

What authorities are creating is strata of unhappy, unsettled and underemployed citizens who will only be too happy to swell the numbers at the next anti-government protest.

The Egyptians, for example, say they have found the solution to job creation. They are indeed adding new jobs but, rather than creating, what they are doing is dividing one job among several people. That is because those in charge were never taught to think outside the box.

What happens is that more people are employed to do a task that initially required one or two employees.

A visit to the Cairo Press Centre in the Ministry of Information in the early 1970s to obtain a government press card found two or three people running the centre. But over the years the numbers grew consistently and by the 1980s that number jumped to about 15 employees performing a task previously carried out by two people. One employee’s job title was described as “the stamp man”. His job was to rubber stamp the press card. And he was a college graduate.

History is still taught across the board in a manner that mystifies parts of the past and blots out others so as not to displease the authorities and not contradict their version of events. Tolerance and coexistence are not key notions. In many instances, the mention of Israel is taboo and some maps do not even show the Jewish state.

Most importantly, there is a chronic and huge mismatch between educational systems and the job market. The subjects covered in schools do not reflect the necessity of the modern workforce. The result is hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates ready to join the next street riots.

Critical thought encouraged in the United States is frowned upon in the Arab world and often seen as subversive.

It is high time that the leaders of the Arab world pull their collective heads out of the sand and face reality and move to provide a better future for their children.